Image of blindfolded statue holding the scales of justice

Crisis in the Courts

No president in recent memory has done more to reshape the judiciary than Donald Trump — and it could set back reproductive health and rights for decades.

Section 1: The Issue

In less than 4 years, Trump has appointed 200 federal, lifetime judges.

Trump is creating a conservative stronghold in the judicial branch, with judges who serve for life — and whose records show hostility to reproductive freedom, health care access, and civil rights.

The U.S. judicial branch is made up of judges serving at all 3 levels of federal courts, all of whom interpret and apply the laws that govern our country — from how we vote to decisions about our bodies. They include district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. Judges in all 3 courts serve lifetime appointments.

Supreme Court undercuts access to birth control under Obamacare - NPR, July 8, 2020Headline: As Roe nears 50, abortion is under attack. - CNN, January 25, 2020Headline: The Supreme Court Stopped Anti-Abortion Momentum. For Now. - NYTimes, June 29, 2020Headline: States passed a flurry of new abortion restrictions this year - CNN, October 27, 2019
The United States Capitol building.

Section 2: Supreme Court

You may remember lots of action at the Supreme Court in recent years...

The Supreme Court is considered the ‘final say’ on federal laws and functions as a guardian and interpreter of the Constitution. The President has the power to appoint federal judges with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Federal judges serve for life.

March 2016

Merrick Garland Merrick Garland Obama's pick nominated, then blocked for 10 months

April 2017

Neil Gorsuch Neil Gorsuch Trump's pick confirmed in Garland's place

July 2018

Anthony Kennedy Anthony Kennedy Retires so Trump can appoint another Justice

September 2018

Christine Blasey Ford

Testifies to sexual assault...

Christine Blasey FordBrett Kavanaugh

October 2018

Brett Kavanaugh

Narrowly confirmed by 2 votes

But what if we told you the Supreme Court was just the tip of the iceberg in a plan to reshape the federal courts — and with it, our reproductive freedom?

Section 3: Courts of Appeals

The real action is happening here, in the courts of appeals or “circuit” courts.

While the Supreme Court is asked to review more than 7,000 cases a year, it hears only 60 to 80. That means the decisions made by the courts of appeals are the last word in the vast majority of cases — about 48,000 a year.

Supreme Court
1 court, 9 justices
Courts of Appeals
13 circuits, 179 judges
District Courts
94 districts, 677 judges

This is where the Trump administration is building a lasting legacy by filling circuit courts at record pace with young, ultra‑conservative judges who will serve for a lifetime.

Circuit Court Judges Confirmed for Lifetime Appointments in the First Term:

Trump

Donald Trump

53

Obama

Barack Obama

30

W. Bush

George W. Bush

37

Clinton

Bill Clinton

30

H.W. Bush

George H. W. Bush

42

Reagan

Ronald Reagan

33

Nearly 1 in 3 judges in the Courts of Appeals is now a President Trump pick...

Image depicting three gavels, one of them yellow, the other two grey.

...and it’s putting your reproductive health and rights at risk.

As the circuit courts flip...

Map graphic showing the 13 Circuits and how they are flipping. The 9 Circuit is shown blinking yellow.
majority Republican-appointed judges (before Trump)
majority Democrat-appointed judges (before Trump)
flipped by Trump’s judge appointments

...more abortion restrictions pass.

2019 was a record setting year for the severity of state‑level bans on abortion. It's no coincidence that most of these bans are in circuits with majority Republican-appointed judges:

300+

bills restricting abortion were introduced

58 abortion restrictions were enacted

This includes 6-week abortion bans before most people know they’re pregnant in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio.

A conservative agenda unleashed on the courts is working as planned.

Section 4: Strategy

So how did the administration pull this off? Enter Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mitch McConnell and a picture of the Supreme Court.

He made reshaping the courts a top priority even before the Trump administration took office.

Fun fact: the Constitution says the Senate must give its "advice and consent" before a president's nominee can become a judge. As Senate Majority Leader, Mitch changed the rules to his advantage.

For President Obama's judicial nominees, Mitch McConnell ground Senate confirmation votes to a halt — leaving more than 100 seats empty for the next president to fill.

When President Trump took office, the Senate started working overtime to confirm his picks.

Wait — how did they pack the courts so quickly?

Good question! By ignoring their other job (passing legislation) and by rigging the system that has been in place for years:
  1. Emoji of a scared face. Broken rule #1

    Confirming appellate judges without home state senators' approval, a.k.a. breaking the "Blue Slip Rule."

  2. Emoji of an upset face. Broken rule #2

    Reducing debate time for appeals court nominees from 30 hours to 2

  3. Emoji of an angry face. Broken rule #3

    Overlooking unqualified ratings from the non-partisan American Bar Association

Photograph of Mitch McConnell

My motto for the year is 'leave no vacancy behind.'”

Mitch McConnell, April 2020

Section 5: Judges

All this has resulted in a dramatic influx of nominees who are overwhelmingly:

  • Young
  • White
  • Male
  • Hostile towards reproductive health care

Let’s meet a few of them, shall we?

Cory Wilson

Judge on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals

Supported “the complete and immediate reversal of Roe v. Wade” in a 2007 questionnaire.

Sarah Pitlyk

Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

Defended Iowa’s unconstitutional abortion ban at 6 weeks, when most women do not even realize they are pregnant.

Stuart Kyle Duncan

Judge on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals

Voted twice to ban nearly all abortions in Texas during the pandemic and litigated multiple cases seeking to restrict LGBTQ rights.

Amy Coney Barrett

Judge on the United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals

Has been critical of Roe, stating that “The framework of Roe essentially permitted abortion on demand” in a way that “ignited a national controversy.”

Those are just a few of the Trump administration’s most extreme picks, and they’re already making waves.

Where is he finding these people? The Federalist Society, a highly influential conservative organization that advocates an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Originalists reject the decades of established precedent protecting individual liberty, including the right to abortion.

Section 6: Impact

77%

of Americans support the right to an abortion and want to see Roe v. Wade protected.

But President Trump's court picks threaten the will of the majority… and will continue to long after his presidency ends.

One example? June Medical Services v. Russo

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court recently struck down a Louisiana abortion restriction that would have made abortion virtually inaccessible in the state. While a narrow win, this law is nearly identical to the Texas law struck down four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health. Both of the Trump administration's appointees, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, voted not to follow precedent. With at least 15 other abortion cases one step away from the Supreme Court, the fight is far from over.

Planned Parenthood health centers have seen firsthand the devastating consequences for people in states where politicians have restricted access to abortion. Patients are traveling hundreds of miles, crossing state lines, and waiting weeks to get an abortion — if they can access services at all.

Section 7: Call to action

So what now? Now we band together to defend our health and rights.

No matter what, you can count on this: Planned Parenthood will fight to protect your reproductive freedom, wherever it’s under threat.

Beyond providing essential health care, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) conducts impact litigation in state and federal courts across the country. We have been lead or co-counsel in most of the major reproductive rights cases of the past thirty years.